AUBURN, Ala. – The Auburn Tigers are already insulating themselves from critics and doubters.
The Tigers are picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference after ending coach Tony Barbee's third season in a 1-16 tailspin.
The roster has undergone a major overhaul with six of the top eight scorers gone and eight newcomers, including Virginia transfer KT Harrell. Auburn is hoping the new blood translates into better chemistry and play.
"Our biggest thing that coach Barbee's preaching right now is that we're our own judge," forward Allen Payne said. "We stay within our locker room and we do what we do and we don't worry about what anybody else thinks.
"For us to be picked last, personally I don't agree. But I can't worry about those things. Everything will play out in the next couple of months."
Barbee brought in a sports psychologist to work with the players before they went to the Bahamas for exhibition games to work on team chemistry and bonding.
He said it has paid off leading into the season.
"This team is as close as any team I've coached," Barbee said.
Here are five things to watch in Auburn's season:
BARBEE'S JOB: This could be a pivotal year for his job security after the Tigers dropped their final 10 games to finish 9-23. Athletic director Jay Jacobs issued a letter of support in March saying he expected the team "to show significant improvement under coach Barbee's leadership." Barbee is 12-38 in Southeastern Conference games, 35-59 overall and his teams have lost 20-plus games twice. Barbee insists he's not worried about whether he's on the hot seat. "That doesn't mean a thing to me," he said. "The only thing that matters is how I perform every day in preparing this team."
FILLING VOIDS: Not all the roster turnover was expected, beyond departing seniors like Frankie Sullivan, Rob Chubb and Josh Wallace. Two of last season's recruits, Brian Greene Jr. and Jordan Price, left the team. In July, Barbee dismissed Shaq Johnson, who started 21 games. It leaves seniors Payne (60 starts) and guard Chris Denson (20) as the only players back who have started multiple games. Denson, who averaged 11.9 points, might have to shoulder an even bigger scoring load. Seven-footer Asauhn Dixon-Tatum has gained some 25 pounds in an effort to better bang with other SEC post players with Chubb gone.
HARRELL'S ROLE: The Tigers need Harrell, who sat out last season, to make a big impact. He averaged 8.0 points as a freshman at Virginia before his minutes dipped the following season. Payne describes him simply as "a basketball player," who can be the scorer or set up teammates effectively.
ON POINT: Freshman Tahj Shamsid-Deen and junior college transfer Malcolm Canada are expected to battle for the point guard spot. The 5-foot-10, 163-pound Shamsid-Deen helped lead Columbia High School to three Georgia Class AAA state titles. Canada was a late signee after Jerome Seagears changed his mind about transferring from Rutgers to Auburn. "We've got great options at that point guard position but we're going to need them both to play at a high level for us this year," Barbee said.
MOVING UP?: Payne is confident the Tigers will step it up after a dismal season. "We'll be better," he said. "I don't think there's any way to go but up. I think we'll definitely be improved from where we were last year. Our chemistry is good with incorporating so many new players. I think that's the biggest thing for us right now. But we'll just have to let it play out."